Category Archives: UK

Life of Brian (1979)

Director: Terry Jones

This film contains one of the most outstanding silences in any film (well, any sound film, obviously) I’ve ever seen, i.e. the bit where Brian shouts “NOW FUCK OFF!” at his suddenly acquired mass of followers, and they pause before, about eight seconds later, John Cleese’s disciple asks him how they should fuck off. It’s one of the most beautifully timed jokes in a film that swarms with them; watching it again tonight for the first time in several years (the first film I’ve watched in months, obviously, except for repeats of Flash Gordon and Heavy Metal which obviously didn’t need to be reviewed again here) was a great reminder of just how thick and fast the comedy comes, and how absurd baffling the controversy the film generated back in the day (still does? Apparently the town of Bournemouth only lifted their local ban on the film as recently as 2015, and even in this country it actually got upgraded from an M rating—which is the one my DVD copy bears—to an MA for its blu-ray reissue. Unless that was on account of the bonus features?) was. Even allowing for changes in attitudes over time, it seems bizarre that people could seriously accuse it of blasphemy; it clearly doesn’t have a go at that Jesus fellow in any way, the one scene in which Jesus appears—i.e. the Sermon on the Mount—plays him straight and the humour comes from the crowd who mishear what he says. And that’s the real root of the film’s satire; it’s not taking the piss out of Jesus, it’s taking the piss out of his followers, as witness the speed with which Brian’s disciples not only attach themselves to him for no good reason, then become divided as to whether the gourd or the shoe (and indeed whether it’s a shoe or a sandal) is his true sign, and finally not only misunderstand but actively ignore what he actually says… Come to think of it, maybe that’s really why people took such offence to Life of Brian back then, cos they recognised it was about themselves rather than their Lord…

As a final thought, how good is Graham Chapman as Brian? I only discovered tonight John Cleese actually wanted the role, and had to be talked out of it with difficulty by the other Pythons. What a piece of potentially terrible miscasting that could’ve been; considering Cleese’s general Python persona and the other parts he plays in the film, I just can’t imagine him working as Brian. Chapman was so determined not to fuck it up that he overcame the alcoholism that had plagued him for years, and you can see that commitment in his performance. I mean, all the Pythons are good in their many and varied parts, but it’s Chapman’s film, really. Absolutely top stuff.

Vampire Circus (1972)

Director: Robert Young

And we need a bit of Hammer for this month, too, so why not go with one that’s been on the to-do list for a while. This is, obviously, latter-day Hammer, and I gather it’s generally regarded as one of the better such films these days—even Sinclair McKay is quite kind to it in his book on Hammer—although at the time it seems to have been comparatively unloved. Again we have Hammer somewhat stuck in its fading gothic mode, but at least this time they had some new people on board to write produce and direct it, and at least it wasn’t just another Dracula sequel (though there’d be one of those that same year, and the next). It’s a film of kind of limited resources, whose production was kind of hampered by Young’s determination to take his time with it and make it as good as possible; this was the height of presumption at Hammer, and in the end some key scenes never got shot. For the most part, though, I don’t think the film actually suffers too much. Our story is set in some Mitteleuropa village suffering a plague which the townsfolk ascribe to a curse laid on them by a vampire killed nearby some years earlier; somehow, despite roadblocks being place, the titular circus comes to the village and, you know, things don’t get any better from there, cos the circus people are there to fulfil the vampire’s curse and restore him to life. Or unlife, whatever. Kind of bold in some ways (opening with a child as the first victim, and having two more later, gives it a decidedly unpleasant edge) and problematic in various others (the animal attack scene is just terribly done, and there are slips in continuity and logic even I noticed), but generally it’s pretty solid and markedly better than most of the other 70s Hammers I’ve seen.

The Meaning of Life (1983)

Director(s): Terry Jones [& Terry Gilliam]

This happened to be on TV tonight, so, despite it having always been my least favourite of the Python films I watched it. And it’s still my least favourite Python film, nothing’s changed on rewatching, except that where I previously thought the “supporting feature”—Gilliam’s Crimson Permanent Assurance—was the best thing about the film, I kind of rediscovered tonight just how much better it is than the rest of the film. Conceptually ingenious and screamingly funny in a way the rest of Meaning of Life isn’t. The “feature presentation” itself is watchable (well, maybe not the Mr Creosote business), and bits of it are kind of tremendous (particularly some of Eric Idle’s songs), but… I don’t know. Certainly it was something of a step back from the previous two films, back to the sketch-based structure of the TV series and away from the continuous narrative of Holy Grail and Life of Brian (which they very rarely attempted on TV)… but it doesn’t work the same here, part of which is that the film doesn’t really use Gilliam’s animation skills like the TV series did, and part of it is that most of these sketches wouldn’t have been allowed to crap on at this length on TV. And, of course, part of that is because most of this wouldn’t have been allowed on TV at all… yet the Python team’s avowed delight at not being restricted by television constraints somehow didn’t really transfer into the sort of thing it could’ve been, there’s something calculated and sniggering and a bit juvenile about the offensiveness on show that stops it from being as really dark as they seemed to think it was. Still, like I said, bits of it are good—even if it can’t quite live up to its opening, some of the earlier scenes are fun—and it did remind me that being chased off the top of a cliff to one’s death by a horde of attractive women wearing nothing but roller derby helmets and pads isn’t exactly the worst way you could check out from this vale of tears…

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

I’m filing this under both documentary and drama because I’m not really sure how else to do so. “Dramatised documentary” is probably the best description for it, but that opens up a range of questions that the film invites us to ask pretty much from the get go. Primarily, and most obviously, how much of the film actually IS “documentary”? To what extent is it actually a drama posing as documentary? How far is a documentary still a “documentary” if parts of it at least are staged in some way (and can documentary even avoid at least some degree of contrivance)? That’s a question Werner Herzog’s documentary career has kind of been built on, and we’ve been asking it at least since Nanook of the North, and it hangs over this film… Anyway, our subject is one Nicholas Edward Cave, you may know those bands he’s fronted over the last four decades; I’m admittedly not a mega-fan of Nick—I know, I’m a bad goth—and I wasn’t particularly enamoured of Push the Sky Away, the album he and the Bad Seeds are working on in the course of this film (though the songs sound better in the film somehow than I remember them doing on record). That said, Forsyth and Pollard’s handling of their subject is interesting whatever you make of Nick himself; much of the film is in the form of conversations between him and various people—a psychotherapist, actor Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, former Seed Blixa Bargeld (who’s… filled out a bit since he was in the band), current Seed Warren Ellis, and a group of archivists—which sounds like death but our directors manage to make it anything but, and of course that whole issue of “real vs staged” helps maintain interest (e.g. there’s photographic evidence of Tracy Pew beating up some German guy pissing on him on-stage, but what about the equally marvellous story of Nick’s teenage transvestism? Did that really happen?). Cave says a couple of things about living for performance and the desire to transform himself into something he wasn’t, and those two statements kind of underpin the whole film and leave us to question the “Nick Cave” we see throughout it; if there’s no definite answer by the end, the journey is still a fun one. Plus Warren Ellis plays a Microkorg at several points, and that always wins me over to an artist…

Dredd (2012)

Director: Pete Travis

So the new Mad Max trailer dropped, and it got me to thinking that, well, isn’t post-nuclear apocalyptic stuff of this kind a bit… I don’t know, old hat? I don’t know when Max’s original adventures were meant to take place, but I suspect we’re now living past that time anyway, plus full-scale nuclear holocaust just doesn’t seem to, you know, intrigue people the way it did in the 80s… And yet here’s Dredd, on SBS2 tonight, and I never thought until the credits rolled about it being, you know, out of time in its own way. I don’t know. Anyway, I grew up on 2000AD, the legendary home of the original Judge Dredd strip which was pretty much always the star feature of that comic… it took me an awfully long time to realise just how, well, fascist its basic premise is; post-nuclear war, what’s left of humanity gathers into Mega-Cities where the Judges are the ultimate force of law, instant judge jury and executioner. Still, when you’re eight years old, you don’t think about that sort of thing, you’re more interested in the futuristic flash… the film at least makes few bones about the dystopian side of its story; it’s a brutally quick set-up to a brutally simple story (Dredd and rookie judge Anderson get trapped in a locked-down city block run by drug kingpin—queenpin?—Ma-Ma, and have to defend themselves with limited weaponry against, oh, hundreds of her gang members and associates, including four of their fellow Judges on the take from Ma-Ma), delivered with, well, brutality. The thing that impressed me most about Dredd was how it pulled off the difficult feat that Judge Dredd failed to do 20 years ago, i.e. delivering a film that would keep long-term Dreddheads happy (even though I haven’t read 2000AD since, what, 1993 or something, I’m still one of those long-termers) without alienating the non-fans, always a difficult deal but Dredd actually pulls it off; it’s recognisable as a “Judge Dredd story” and a more broadly appealing SF actioner. The other thing that impressed me was, of course, the aforementioned brutality; you get the feeling the people involved were determined to revel as much as possible in the fact they could go way beyond the limits of a comic aimed at younger readers. There’s some damned nasty stuff—particular the scene of Anderson psychically interrogating Kay—which I don’t suppose 2000AD could go near even these days when I presume things are a bit looser than they were when I used to read it… On the whole, ruthlessly efficient stuff that goes down easily if you’re into that sort of thing, and that barely gives you time to wonder how the Judges actually let Ma-Ma and her gang take over that city block without stopping her much earlier…

Alternative 3 (1977)

Director: Christopher Miles

It’s fascinating how people get taken in by hoaxes, particularly obvious ones, and even more particularly admitted ones. Nearly four decades after the fact, for example, people are still falling for Alternative 3; a Google search demonstrates as much in seconds. Rewatching it tonight myself, I find myself asking a number of questions about the thing, especially this: just how were people expected to receive it in 1977? I mean, I know how they did—either by not sticking around for the credits containing the actors’ names and panicking about it being real, or by reading the credits and berating ITV for perpetrating this irresponsible nightmare vision—but how were they meant to? The film’s own avowed copyright date is “April 1st 1977”, and I suspect it might’ve been more of a dead giveaway had it actually aired on that date… which it didn’t, since Anglia (the studio behind it) couldn’t actually get a slot for it on ITV that day and it actually aired nearly three months later. But would it have seemed more obviously fake or not?

For that matter, why am I even asking how “obvious” the fakery is? Is it only “obvious” because I already know it’s a hoax? Do the people in it only seem like they’re acting because I know they’re actors? If someone just sat me down with it and said “here, watch this” and I’d never heard of A3 before, how would it strike me? Compare it to Propaganda, which I didn’t know was a hoax when I watched it but I still felt there was something weird and wrong about it. Similarly, back in the early 90s I remember a program called The Einstein Code, which revolved around Einstein having developed a sort of “bad luck bomb”, it just got more and more preposterous, I got more and more “what the fuck is this shit”… and then I saw the “April Fools Production” credit at the end and I howled.

And this is why I wonder how people were supposed to respond to Alternative 3. Was it supposed to seem, you know, “wrong” to them in the way Propaganda and The Einstein Code did; were people supposed to look at this bizarre story of human colonies on the Moon and on Mars in the event of some terminal environmental catastrophe here on Earth and think “hang on, this doesn’t sound right” and wonder why some of the people in the film looked oddly like people they might’ve seen in other films of TV shows… cos what makes me ask is, in fact, the framework in which it’s presented, i.e. as an episode in a series called Science Report. Did such a series actually exist? I can’t actually find any reference to it online except in relation to A3; IMDB only lists A3 itself as an individual “TV movie” and has no entry for a series called Science Report that I can find. SO… if this series didn’t exist, were people surprised to see it on TV? If it did, were people surprised to find it had a bunch of reporters and other staff they wouldn’t have seen before? Did A3 seem, you know, “unlike” the other episodes? How “acted” does it really seem to other people? These are things I don’t know, and that’s part of what makes A3 so hard to actually appraise… the other part being, of course, that the story behind the hoax is the story, the hoaxed thing itself is in some ways just a prop…

Zardoz (1974)

Director: John Boorman

Talking of films that don’t make sense… actually that’s unfair; the reasonably broad outlines of Zardoz are clearer than I expected them to be and the narrative actually does make sense (although it surely does take its sweet bloody time doing so). Some of the individual details, mind you, are a markedly different story… Anyway, I first saw this way back when, possibly the late 80s, early 90s, I can’t actually remember any more; I only recall seeing it on TV, and only watching about half of it cos it was confusing the hell out of me… and let’s face it, it does get off to a fairly baffling beginning, in which the sight of Sean Connery dressed in… whatever the fuck THAT costume was supposed to be wasn’t the most perplexing thing. Still, I knew one day I’d give it some sort of second chance, and one day I actually found it at the library, ripped it for future revisiting, and deemed tonight to be the night I finally did so. Big revelation: Zardoz, whatever else may be said for or against it, is phenomenal to look at, Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is nothing if not consistently jaw-dropping (blessed, obviously, by the choice of locations), and this is an important aspect of the film I would’ve no doubt missed watching it cropped for TV al those years ago. And, as I said, the story actually does come together: after an unspecified apocalypse, humanity divides into “Eternals” who’ve discovered immortality and “Brutals” who haven’t, and over time (which they have plenty of) one of the former breeds a kind of mutant “Brutal” with the ability to bring death to the Eternals and otherwise liven up their rather dull and dry existence. All that is clear enough from the film, if perhaps only by the very end. The precise fine points of exactly how Zed (Connery) goes about doing this aren’t always so clear (particularly the confrontation with the Tabernacle)… Still, on the whole I found this a lot more interesting and successful than I’d expected to, going on my own early experience and the film’s general reputation, so I think we can overlook those murkier patches…

The Final Programme (1973)

Director: Robert Fuest

I only discovered tonight that Robert Fuest was actually a set designer before he took up directing, and suddenly the two Dr Phibes films made more sense… And I also found it made inadvertent sense to follow Heavy Metal with this, still the only film anyone’s made of a Michael Moorcock novel, because on checking the latter’s IMDB credits, I found him listed as a songwriter for the other films (BOC’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars”). Also because, well, it’s about as perplexing as Heavy Metal too… Actually, it’s a fascinating lesson in marketing when you compare the two trailers; I’ve obviously seen the American one included in the Drive-In Delirium many times (that “Cosmic Carnage” section is one of my favourites), which makes it look like some… I don’t know, psychedelic comedy about the end of the world, or something like that. (The American release title—The Last Days of Man on Earth—kind of adds to that.) However, the British trailer on the British DVD posits it more as some sort of spy action thriller, which is actually more what it’s really like, though the apocalypse element does kind of play into things too… basically you could view it as a Bond film (star Jon Finch actually got offered that part before it went to Roger Moore), only fucked; the plot involves some sort of experiment started by Jerry Cornelius’ father before his untimely death, and Jerry has to find some microfilm that will bring it to its proper completion. The only problem is going to be getting it back from his drug-addled psycho brother without getting killed… Apparently Moorcock took three years to find a publisher for his novel (which I’ve not read) because every other publisher he approached said it was too weird; I can imagine the film’s producers having similar conniptions (apparently it started its release life as the top half of a double bill before quickly getting pushed to the bottom). To be sure, it’s a pretty relentless exercise in style over substance, perhaps a little too in love with its own up-front 70s hipness, but it’s strangely compelling for all that. Style over substance needn’t be a bad thing when it’s done this well…

Hellraiser (1987)

Director: Clive Barker

This was probably one of the last films (if not the very last) that I saw for the first time on VHS. By that time I’d actually entered the digital age (so we’re probably talking mid-late 2003), and at that time a number of the old Anchor Bay horror DVDs were showing up in Sydney shops, including my local suburban HMV, as region-free imports, including this one. Which I was interested in but didn’t really want to buy without knowing what I was in for—at this very early stage in my DVD buying I was still a bit loath to buy things sight unseen—and so ventured to the local video shop to rent their somewhat elderly tape of it. I was sufficiently impressed to then buy the DVD, and I will say the Cenobites are still a pretty striking concept; as monsters go, they must’ve seemed something, if not entirely new, certainly markedly different from the raft of slashers the decade had been overflowing with. And it gave the world a new horror icon in Pinhead, of course, even though he’s not called that here (and apparently even while making the second film they thought Julia would actually be the recurring character through the series until they realised how popular Pinhead was). But rewatching tonight reminded me of something notable, i.e. the Cenobites don’t actually do much until reasonably late in the game… they obviously don’t even realise Frank’s escaped them until Kirsty inadvertently summons them, and they do kind of bugger all to help her for the most part when he’s trying to kill her; otherwise they’re really just a very background presence. Talking of presence, is it just me or is Andrew Robinson’s presence an odd one? You know, Scorpio from Dirty Harry as this nice suburban husband and father? Watching the film tonight, I felt there was something… off about him even before the last act when we realise he’s not exactly Larry any more… I don’t know what I make of the film now, but it seemed less satisfying tonight for some reason. The geographical vagueness of it—where exactly is it set?—irritated me more than ever before, and the rat killing business just seemed hugely unnecessary (like the people killings didn’t?). Still, I’ll give it points for bravery in trying to present a somewhat singular vision even if it did exceed the available resources at times; shame that vision didn’t survive much further into the series…

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)

Director: Brian Clemens

Brian Clemens was one of the main people responsible for The Avengers among other 1960s TV series, so he should’ve been a good catch for Hammer… except somehow he wasn’t, ultimately being attached to only two of their films (the other being Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde which he produced); Sinclair McKay’s book hints at behind-the-scenes conflicts with Michael Carreras, who was running the show by this time, and when Hammer eventually decided to sit on the finished product for two years—as they did with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell before finally releasing those two films together too late to do any good—I presume Clemens realised there wasn’t much point fighting. And that’s a damn shame, cos it was a good fight to try to reinvigorate the studio with some different twists on old stories (this was, as noted previously, intended to kick off a new series); in this case, Clemens appears to have looked at a bunch of older vampire films and decided what they really needed was more sword fights… Period setting here is a bit vague, but I’m guessing mid-1600s, assuming the “war” referred to was the English civil war; whenever it is, though, there’s a village being beset by some decidedly unconventional vampires, with an unusual m.o. (draining their victims of youth rather than blood) and seemingly few problems with such things as daylight and crucifixes (one attack actually happens in a church). It’s up to stolidly semi-Teutonic hero Captain Kronos and his hunchback offsider Professor Grost to save the day. This is an awful lot of fun in a fairly B-grade way, enlivened with some arresting images (e.g. the church bell dripping with blood), some nice acting (particularly John Carson as the doctor who summons Kronos in the first place and becomes a vampire himself), and a rather splendid noble residence where the final confrontation takes place (one of Hammer’s best sets). Decidedly the better half of the bill with F&tMfH, so it’s disappointing that it went down with that ship and the projected series never happened, as it may have done if only Hammer had given a shit…